A year after a 'catastrophic' leg injury, gymnast Brody Malone is back and maybe better than ever


FORT WORTH, Texas — FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Brody Malone stuck his high bar dismount, his legs practically magnetized to the mat. He saluted the judges, turned toward the crowd and then did something very unBrody Malone-like.

He roared. He couldn’t help it.

The sound that echoed through Dickies Arena after the first night of the U.S. Championships on Thursday was a mixture of joy and catharsis culled from more than a year of pain, uncertainty and occasional doubt.

It was also a message — a very loud, very clear one — to the rest of the men trying to make the U.S. Olympic team in Paris this summer, that the normally soft-spoken two-time national champion is back. Surgically repaired right knee and all.

“I kind of lost it there at the end,” Malone said after posting an all-around total of 85.950 that put him atop the leaderboard heading into Saturday’s finals.

Considering Malone’s winding path back to this moment, it’s hard to blame him.

His high bar routine at a World Cup event in Germany in March 2023 started off with Malone cruising through a set that earned him a gold medal at the 2022 world championships.

Then Malone slipped during his dismount. When he crashed to the mat, his right leg went one way, and the rest of his body went another. Laying on the ground in agony in front of a silent arena, his leg fractured and multiple ligaments in the knee shredded, Malone somehow found clarity.

“I knew I was going to be out for a long time, but it was like more of what was going through my head was like, ‘This just happened. I just have to take things as it comes right now,’” he said.

Like, say, making his way onto a stretcher. Calling his family back in Georgia. Getting to the hospital. Bracing for the first of what would be three surgeries necessary to help him walk normally again.

Gymnastics can be brutal on the body, particularly for those who spend the better part of two decades testing the limits. The injury rate is essentially 100%.

Still, this was different.

Syque Caesar, an Olympic gymnast turned coach, watched medical staff tend to Malone and shook his head. Asked on what end of the gymnastics scale Malone’s injury fell, Caesar simply replied “catastrophic.”

“Many people who aren’t Brody Malone probably would have retired from the sport,” said Caesar, who now coaches Malone at EVO Gymnastics in Sarasota, Florida. “For anyone else, it could have been career-ending for sure.”

Not for Malone, a former rodeo rider who knows a thing or two about resiliency. He lost his mother and his stepmother while growing up in northwest Georgia. Those experiences, as difficult as they were, allowed him to gain the perspective necessary to navigate his way back.

Yes, his leg hurt like hell. Yes, there have been times when he wondered if he really had it in himself to do this. Yes, the Fear of Missing Out while watching the U.S. men win a team bronze medal at the 2023 world championships without him was real.

Still, it’s “just” gymnastics, right?

“I mean, I’ve gone through worse,” Malone said.

Still, Caesar tried to manage expectations when Malone joined EVO in the summer of 2023. Caesar told U.S. men’s high-performance director Brett McClure they only “needed” Malone to be ready on four of the six men’s events by the 2024 Olympics: pommel horse, rings, high bar and parallel bars, the ones where the legs are stressed the least.

That’s what Caesar told McClure, anyway. That’s not what he told Malone.

“I shoot for the stars,” Caesar said. “I’m like, you’re coming back for (the all-around). We’ll figure out your gymnastics and we’ll go from there.”

As Malone started to heal, a plan began to form to get him ready on floor exercise and vault, too (where leg stability is a prerequisite) by the Olympic Trials in late June. By January, Malone was flipping and landing on a TumbleTrak (think a trampoline on steroids). By March, testing things out on floor.

And there he was on Thursday night, a sizable brace and a healthy amount of tape covering the four-inch-ish scar that runs along the outside of his right leg, looking in some ways better than ever.

The limitations put on his legs during the early stages of his rehab gave Malone more time to refine his skills on events that are more upper-body intensive. In that way, Malone may be ahead of where he was in 2021 when he finished 10th in the all-around finals at the Tokyo Olympics.

Sam Mikulak, a six-time national champion and three-time Olympian himself, pulled Malone aside recently and offered a pep talk that Mikulak admits probably wasn’t required.

“It’s like, ‘Dude, everything you’ve done, you’ve just strengthened your strength so much more,'” said Mikulak, now a coach at EVO. “’So you’re a better gymnast than you’ve ever been now, you just got trust and go let it rip.’”

It’s gotten to the point where Malone no longer worries about whether his leg is going to hold up. During warm-ups on Thursday, he botched the end of a tumbling run and bent awkwardly. While others around him reflexively sprung up in concern, he laughed it off and admitted he was embarrassed but hardly hurt.

If anything, those times when he has crashed and burned have helped restore his confidence as much as any stuck dismount. He has tested his leg. He has tested himself. Both have passed every time.

He’s back, maybe a little ahead of schedule. He’s ready to stop talking about his leg and start focusing on what’s next, including perhaps a trip to Paris and a reminder to everyone else that when he’s at his best, he’s among the best.

“I hate to lose,” he said. “I’m not going to come (here) just to participate. I want to win.”

In maybe the most important of ways, he already has.

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games



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